Almost four years ago my husband and I got on a plane and flew to France. This was a trip of a lifetime for us, and one that we both knew might be the only long distance trip we both could take, given our health conditions. After hearing for over 4 decades about his two years living outside of Paris as a boy, he finally got to show me his beloved city and I, too, fell in love.
We spent the first week in Paris, and then joined a tour of Normandy for the second week. I wished we could stay in France an entire month, rather than a scant two weeks. I arrived feeling like I had the French of a two year old, and came home to California answering every simple question in French, because I had trouble moving the switch in my brain back to English.
I wish I were in Paris now. Just to stand in solidarity with the French as they mourn the damage to Paris’ heart. La cathédrale de Notre Dame is the symbol of constancy, of reliability, of soul, to the French. It is something that holds fast through plague, war and famine. Construction started in 1163. 1163! We Americans cannot conceive of a building that old unless we have traveled outside the United States. It took 200 years to build. Stone upon stone, upward toward the heavens, the walls so heavy they had to be supported from the outside in order to stand up. Everything else in life may come and go in France: kings, governments, invading armies. But Notre Dame stands constant, the heart of the city. That heart has been damaged, and France mourns.
When I was a girl, I loved climbing trees. I didn’t have the opportunity very often since we frequently lived in places that didn’t have trees either in the yards nor lining the street. So when I was visiting somewhere where there were trees to climb, I seized the chance. I loved climbing up the tree. My muscles felt good, the climb made me feel strong and in control, and if the tree was tall, the view from up high was fantastic. I loved climbing so much, I would climb up and up until the branches got too thin to hold my weight. I would survey my surroundings, and feel like I was queen of all I could see. There was only one problem. I was afraid to climb down.
Climbing down is completely different than climbing up. Climbing up I could see and reach for handholds and footholds. Climbing down….. not so much. I could glance down to get the general location of the lower branch, but then I would have to look back up to see where I should place my hands and I would have to feel around for the next available foothold. That was the frightening part. I had to trust that my body moving through space would know what to do. Space and I don’t have the most comfortable relationship. My depth perception isn’t completely accurate due to my vision, my balance has been a little off because of repeated severe ear infections since I was a kid, and my sense of volume in space flat out isn’t reliable, and never has been. I can train my body to move through space accurately if I practice enough: driving, dancing, sailing, yoga. But something like gymnastics where I might fall from the parallel bars? Not a chance.
So climbing trees was an interesting thing to love doing. This was never a case of “Oh no, what have I done?” I always knew when I started the climb that I would have trouble getting down. But the climb up was so exhilarating that I almost always chose to climb anyway. Among other things, I knew that I couldn’t stay up in the tree forever. I would eventually need to eat and sleep, and I could do neither while up in the tree. So I knew from the get-go that I would eventually force myself to climb down. But the climb down never got any easier nor less frightening.
I’ve thought a lot about why I loved it so much, because it was more than just the exhilaration and the view. I think it had to do with the feeling that while I was up in a tall tree, nothing bad could get to me. As a child, I couldn’t depend on my environment. It would be nurturing one minute, and 5 minutes later it still might be, or it might not. I retreated into fantasy worlds based on fictional characters and settings from the books my mom read to me. I excelled in school, mostly, and that also became a retreat. It took me awhile to figure out how to read (I’m moderately dyslexic), but once I did, then new worlds became available to me any time I opened a book. Worlds where there might be danger, but worlds in which I knew that everything would eventually turn out all right. The characters were so brave in those books. At least once I progressed beyond “See Spot run.” (Spot was a dog, for those of you who didn’t grow up on those readers.)
Here’s the important thing, though. Everything turned out ok in those books because the main character was frightened of something bad, and she faced it. She (or he) not only faced it, she did something about it. It didn’t mean the fear went away. It didn’t mean she just resigned herself to evil. She fought against the bad thing, whether it was a monster, an evil stepmother, or a thief. She fought against it (usually with help from a friend), and she kept on fighting against it until things were put right. Those books of fiction I read when I was a kid gave me the courage to keep putting one foot in front of the other with the hope that one day things would be better. I think climbing down from trees even though I was afraid was part of that. I think it was a tangible way that I could prove to myself that I could be brave, even if only for an hour or so.
I wanted to share with you some of the music we will be singing today. It is Louis Vierne’s Solemn Mass. It is new for most of us, as the last time our choir performed it was 20 years ago, and most of us haven’t been in the choir that long. It is a departure from the masses we normally sing on Christmas and Easter, which are usually by classical composers such as Mozart and Shubert. But Vierne is modern, 1870 – 1937, and his music, while lush, also has a shimmering quality to it at times. Singing it brings forth a mystical illusiveness for me. I hope the music touches something deep within you and gives you strength.
PS – This is the best recording that I have found, but it is only the first 2 movements. You can find the last 3 movements by following the links within Youtube. Enjoy!